Launches of fuel cell cars are reportedly planned by up to six carmakers from 2015 including Tata Motors of India, owners of Jaguar Land Rover. They are portrayed as pivotal in creating success for pure electric cars but the truth is very different. More is explained in the IDTechEx report Future Technology for Hybrid and Pure Electric Cars 2015-2025.
Toyota has been the first to declare its hand with full details of its contribution the Mirai. People listen to Toyota because it is way ahead as leader in EVs overall with sales about four times those of number two according to analysts IDTechEx. It was right to say that affordable pure-electric cars using batteries were not ready for prime time and right to persevere with hybrids. It knows about pure electric vehicles: it is global leader in pure electric forklifts.
However, Toyota is wrongly reported as "betting the shop" on fuel cell cars. Indeed, a managing director of Toyota Satoshi Ogiso has joked that their Chairman Mr Takeshi Uchiyamada, who was behind the hugely successful Prius hybrid during its ten wilderness years and is behind their fuel cells, is now a Don Quixote figure.
Fuel cell rollout projects across the world are actually extremely cautious and modest. For example, the European HyFive program involves Toyota, BMW, Daimler, Honda and Hyundai. It only aims to get 110 fuel cell vehicles on the road by contributing $45 million.
Progress is still slow, following the invention of the fuel cell in 1839 and Honda having arguably the first production fuel cell car the FCX Clarity and the Toyota FCEV Highlander appearing in 2008, only tiny numbers being deployed. Indeed, IDTechEx puts fuel cell cars at only 1% of all hybrid and pure electric cars sold worldwide in 2024.
Franco Gonzalez, EV analyst at IDTechEx explains, "Fuel cells will not be competitive with conventional engines in up-front cost for at least 15 years. Indeed, they need very expensive new hydrogen fuelling infrastructure in addition."
He continues, "The Germans may achieve that and the Californians are sprinkling 100 across the state by 2017 but that still means frequent diversions into further grid-locked roads to find the stuff. Fuel cells could eventually make sense for fleets such as forklifts and buses because providing their hydrogen refue?ling is trivial, given their fixed routes. Indeed, fuel cells are in about 8000 forklifts in the USA where hydrogen is cheaper. Reduced cost of ownership and no local pollution could become market drivers in closed systems".
"While it is commendable that fuel cell car production costs have tumbled to the order of $100,000 each, that is still a long way from being competitive. Therefore we are not surprised that the Toyota Mirai fuel cell car, costing a premium $57,000 in the USA and £63,104 in the UK before grants, is constrained to test levels of only 700 worldwide in 2015 despite initial orders for 1500. Only about 2,000 units will be very expensively made in 2016 and approximately 3,000 units in 2017 - then only tens of thousands in the 2020s, says Toyota".
"So far, compared to a regular car, the fuel cell car offers bottom end range of only 300 miles, unimpressive acceleration and fuel cost, probably a poor resale price and diversion to refuel with the hydrogen from non-sustainable sources (just as electricity and gasoline to charge cars usually comes from non-sustainable sources). The Toyota Mirai is very much a work in progress with its poor headroom in the back due to passengers sitting on the large hydrogen tanks. Many find it ugly due to the huge air scoops at the front for the extra radiators cooling the fuel cell".
"Meanwhile, the year is approaching when affordable battery cars arrive with the same lack of pollution at point of use, the same 300 miles range but acceptable resale price due to being simpler and lasting longer. In 2020, or not long after, that could provide lift-off in sales way beyond fuel cell cars. Indeed, fuel cell cars perpetuate the bad practice of putting platinum in a consumer product and they still need a supercapacitor or battery to do the heavy lifting. For example, the Toyota Mirai launched in 2015 has a 1.5kWh NiMH battery".
"So far, fuel cells are usually only range extenders for hybrids though one day they may manage all load variations. Even then they will need separate devices to accept the energy harvesting from braking, shock absorbers and photovoltaics."
IDTechEx would not be surprised to find Toyota launching hybrid cars with next-generation fuel extenders that are cheaper to buy and to own than fuel cells and easier to refuel. The question may then become whether to keep the exceptionally high subsidies for fuel cell cars when zero pollution at point of use becomes viable with arguably greener pure-electric battery or supercabattery cars that need less investment. Indeed, electricity to charge the competing pure electric cars is increasingly green with greener grid power and increased use of local solar, including over the car itself, whereas affordable and easily accessed green hydrogen remains elusive.
As outlined in the IDTechEx report, Range Extenders for Electric Vehicles Land, Water & Air 2015-2025, some of the other choices of range extender for hybrids beyond fuel cells are starting to be adopted by Toyota's competitors in 2015 such as the quiet rotary combustion engine in the Proton hybrid car and some of these will be prevalent in 2020 as advanced forms like the Libralato appear.
The range extender choices may even include multi-fuel micro turbines (jet engines) and free-piston fuel generators (no rotation to a separate generator is needed). Some could be used in much greater numbers than fuel cells in cars in future unless fuel cells for open systems like cars see a breakthrough in total cost of ownership, convenience, maintenance and life.